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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak
This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here: https://dayakdaily.com/pusos-jar-part-i/
By Calvin Agau Jemarang and Louise Macul
WITHIN every object in the Sarawak Museum collection lies a human story waiting to be heard. The jar in this photograph (Fig 1) is on Level 5 of the Borneo Cultures Museum. Part I of this series told us about Pengulu Puso Abun, the man in the photograph. Part II brings us the story of the famed jar he so dearly holds onto in the photo. The jar is linked to many people back in time long before Puso came to own it. Like with all things in the Museum, there is a human connection—and sometimes not-so-human.
In the 1970s, one of the co-authors of this article, Calvin Agau Jemarang grew up listening to many tales from his mother, aunties and uncles at his longhouse at Punan Sama, Belaga. This is where he heard of the famous Sekapan Penghulu Puso, who had a strong Punan lineage from his mother’s side of the family. Calvin was told that Puso was related to the great and mythical Belaga Punan Chief Galau.
The story of Puso’s jar begins with Galau. Calvin heard the story in the longhouse, but more than a decade before, Puso told the same story to Tom Harrisson when he donated the jar to the Sarawak Museum in 1963. The Kejaman and Lahanan tell other versions of the story from the same area in Belaga. So it all must be true, yes?
Once upon a time, a mysterious people lived at the headwaters of the mighty Rejang River. They called themselves Buau (genies), but the Punan called them otu julan (nine ghosts). They were fearsome human beings, capable of disappearing and re-appearing in an instance, at will.
The Buau (otu julan in Punan; antu judan in Sekapan) headman was named Galau—a strong, feared, and respected man. However, Galau could also be charming, kind, helpful and well-liked by the people. It is said he was directly related to Mikuong Bungulan from which all the Punan in the Rejang River trace their origin.
One morning, Galau went hunting in the forest. Before he left, he told his family he would return by midday, so they expected him then. However, it was well past noon, and Galau was nowhere to be seen. His family, nonetheless, was not worried—at first. Then, it became late afternoon, and still no Galau to be seen. They became restless.
A search party was quickly assembled and soon made its way to where the villagers said they had last seen Galau that morning. Amid the noise and confusion, six visitors arrived—all strangers to the villagers. They said they came from a distant land with a message for Galau, the great Punan headman.
Galau’s wife told them that he was still in the forest hunting. She called for the elders of the house to talk with and entertain the visitors. She told her daughter to go into the living room and fetch a bebakok sipak (traditional Punan sireh box).
Meanwhile, the six visitors were left unattended on the owa (veranda), sitting patiently in a row. After a while, Galau’s daughter came out of the room with the bebakok sipak. But the visitors had vanished! In their place stood six tajau limai (very fine jars). The frightened girl dropped the sireh box, shrieked, and tried to run off, but she stopped upon seeing her mother and the elders as they arrived on the scene.
Now the whole village came to admire the jars and looked into each one to see if anyone was inside. But all were kosong (empty)! About this time, the search party had returned without finding Galau. Just as Galau’s wife was about to call for more help, there came Galau in a smiling mood.
He was surprised to see a big gathering on his owa and inquired about what was happening. Galau was told about the strange visitors and shown the jars. He was happy and told the villagers that after walking many hours, he was tired and took a nap in the forest. He had a dream. In his dream, he saw six jars standing at his owa—a fine gift from one otu julan to another, he thought.
Galau now had six fine jars until he had to give one away to save lives. Where the Bakun Dam stands today, there was once a large pool called Liruong Weang by the Punan, meaning “wasp pool” (Fig 3). The wasps there were gigantic and lived deep in holes. But the fishing was so good at Liruong Weang that the men from Galau’s longhouse would take their chances and go there to catch fish. However, the men would often mysteriously never return.
One time a group of seven men went to the pool to gather fish. One of them, an old hunter, left the group to relieve himself in the bushes. He had not finished his business when he heard screams from the other men. He emerged, dragging his loincloth and saw swarms of giant wasps attacking his friends. He fled back to the longhouse, which took him two full days.
He told Galau what had happened. Galau decided he had to do something about this problem with the wasps. He armed himself with a large knife and a casting net made of tangang vine fibre.
On his way to the pool, he arrived at the house of Sara La’eh and his wife, Asong Wei, who were also mysterious people. Sadly, their child had recently died, so it was taboo to go past their longhouse. However, Galau felt his mission was urgent and begged them to let him pass. They agreed if he were to pay a fine of one jar.
Galau rushed back to his longhouse and brought a jar—the jar that would become Puso’s. With the payment of this jar, he was able to proceed to Liruong Weang.
When he arrived, he heard a loud rushing sound coming from a large hole. Then he saw wasps trying to fly out. Quickly he set up his net and killed the wasps one by one by hitting them over the head with his knife. The pool was now safe for his men to fish in.
Now Galau had only five jars left, and nothing is known of whatever happened to them. It is suspected they became antu when Galau died, but who knows? However, the one jar that he had given to Sara La’eh was jealously guarded and became a symbol of power. When Sara La’eh and his wife died, it was passed down to their descendants and eventually was passed to Abon Matu, father of Puso Abon. This is the jar that is now in the Sarawak Museum.
The jar, tajau limai, meaning a very fine ancient jar, was prized by Punan, Kajang, and Sekapan people. Tom Harrisson wrote that he had heard of this famed jar when he was on the Oxford University Expedition in 1932. Perhaps he heard the story from Puso himself.
Legend has it that a hen was once spotted nearby the jar, but it disappeared when it flew over it! In another incident, a cat also mysteriously disappeared when it hopped into the mouth of the jar.
In 1963, Harrisson wrote that an almost identical jar might be found in Kota Belud. It is possible that a third jar is in the Sarawak Museum collection and referred to in a 1904 issue of the Sarawak Gazette, pages 211-212, but that has yet to be confirmed. We will save that story for another day. And so we have covered, briefly, the man and his jar in the photo. Things in the Sarawak Museum are not always what they seem…
Calvin Agau Jemarang is a blogger, journalist, and avid reader of the history of Sarawak’s minorities.
Louise Macul is a doctoral researcher, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester and FoSM member. She enjoys discovering the connections between people and the objects in museums.
“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.